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Embracing the Crone - A Rite of Passage

by Layah Bennun

when we met, I tell you
it was a birthday party, a funeral
it was a holy communion
between women, a Visitation…

(Michele Roberts, ‘Magnificat’)

The rain had let up. It was a clear full moon, a Friday evening in November. I did the final preparations to the space as I waited for the women to arrive for the Rite of Passage I had called “Embracing the Crone”. I was filled with anticipation as I went to greet the women arriving from many different places, each an integral and unknown part of the Celebration of Woman we had come together to create. As carloads of crones arrived, they warmed up on herb tea and soon there was the excited chatter of women meeting, sharing and releasing their nervous energy.

Many ‘baby-boomer’ women are going through menopause. When we gather together, it seems like much of the conversation are weary laments about losing the beauty of youth, inextricably linked with the loss of sexual desirability and self-worth. When I overheard a woman recommend a face-lift to another, I realized the extent of what we were up against at this age: spending our precious time grieving the past and attempting to regain it by fighting with our bodies. It seemed to me that we needed a way to mourn the “death” of the attention we received, so we could embrace this new cycle of life. As Doris Lessing told an interviewer in Harper’s in 1973:

“…you only begin to discover the difference between what you really are, your real self, and your appearance, when you get a bit older…A whole dimension of life suddenly slides away and you realize that what in fact you’ve been using to get attention has been what you look like…It’s a biological thing. It’s totally and absolutely impersonal. It really is a most salutary and fascinating thing to go through, shedding it all. Growing old is really extraordinarily interesting.” (Quoted by Germaine Greer: The Whole Woman)

However, going through this change hurts, especially in this youth-oriented culture, and there is little support for women to honour and celebrate the coming of this time. Women either choose to take Hormone Replacement Therapy or not, but the change taking place on the emotional and psychic level is dealt with by many in isolation, toughing it out.

“Like a person newly released from leg-irons, the freed woman staggers at first. Though her excessive visibility was anguish, her present invisibility is disorienting. She had not realized how much she depended upon her physical presence, at shop counters, at the garage, on the bus…” (Germaine Greer: The Change 1991 p.53)

Thus was born “Embracing the Crone: A Rite of Passage”, a celebration of the restoration of a woman to herself. The significance of rites of passage and their disappearance in our culture became evident the more I explored it:

“…our culture has lost the mythic road map which helps locate a person in a larger context. Without a tribal vision of the gods, and their spiritual network, modern individuals are cut adrift to wander without guidance, without models and without assistance through the various life stages. Thus, the Middle Passage, which calls for death before rebirth, is often experienced in frightening and isolating ways, for there are no rites of passage and little help from one’s peers who are equally adrift.” (James Hollis: The Middle Passage p.23)

The first stage of a rite of passage is the withdrawal of the individual from her usual environment and into close contact with Nature. Right from the start, each woman leaves behind her security and creature comforts, disrupts her routine and sets out on an adventure to an unknown destination. As one participant said: ”I had a very strong feeling I needed to attend. I had no idea why, I just felt a strong push. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.” Nature always plays her part, maintaining the spontaneity by her consistent inconsistency; reflecting beauty all around; a constant invitation for each woman to feel her connection to the elements of earth and sky, fire and water, through ritual and ceremony.

After a warm dinner, the women enter Sacred Space. Once the chatter had ceased, each woman began to go “in” and feel her own presence within the group and what brought her to it. Suddenly the self-consciousness was tangible as each woman seemed naked in her rawness as we began to explore the questions: What does it mean to be an elder in this culture? What are my new responsibilities? What has to be let go of to make room for the transformations of energy that are ready to pour through the body-soul? Thus the women begin the journey of peeling away the onionskins on their way to the soft, vulnerable center within. They begin to enter the web of their lives. They stir the cauldron of dark emotions. In sharing their fears, pain and anger in a group of women, they break through a silence born out of isolation. This ‘everyday silence’ can lead to depression, one of the most common symptoms experienced by menopausal women.

As they courageously start to uncover their dark emotions, the atmosphere warms up, coming to life. They begin to name what is stirring inside them. We create ritual.

“Weaving a cocoon out of the substance of one’s own life is the necessary prerequisite for the emergence of the psyche: in withdrawing we create a way out….Going down into the subconscious and coming back out again are vital parts of the soul’s search for meaning…which is what the crone represents. Through having to complete nearly impossible tasks, the Crone earns her healing power. Turning away from a world to discover whether you are really alive is unquestionably painful. But it is in the conscious acceptance of loneliness- when there is nothing else to do- that a natural process of healing occurs.”
(Vicki Noble: Motherpeace Tarot).

The women had bonded, sharing their stories into the night in their lakeside cabins. Laughter and gentle teasing filled the air as they arrived the next morning. Everyone’s attention was focused and present as we continued the journey of cutting all that was alienating and confining, the layers of false selves, away from the self. We delved into our relationships with our bodies, for as Germaine Greer succinctly points out:

“A woman’s body is the battlefield where she fights for liberation. It is through her body that oppression works, reifying her, sexualizing her, victimizing her, disabling her.”
( The Whole Woman p 106)

This is witnessed as each woman revealed her life-long battles with her size and shape and the impact this has had on her life. Insecurity about her body ruins a part of every day for a woman and multi-million-dollar industries exploit this. In the U.S. women spend more than $10 billion a year on make-up and beauty aids and one in forty women has had silicone breast implants. (The Whole Woman). As Dr. Cathy Read wrote: ”Cosmetically, breasts have been systematically worked over from the inside out. It is unfortunate that breast health has not received an equal amount of attention. The breast cancer statistics are the marker of just how unhealthy our breasts are beneath their gloss.”(p. 49-50). Without mincing words, Greer sums it up:

"Women are exhorted to fight and deny their age by every means in their power….So desperate are some women to stave off aging that they are prepared to submit to injections of botulin toxin to freeze their facial muscles and prevent wrinkles. It must be a sad world when what every mother wants for Mother’s day is ‘younger-looking skin’. That is one thing she is never going to have, not even if she endures all the agonies of a face-lift."
(The Whole Woman p.23)

Other participants experienced a helplessness at the hands of the medical practitioners as they often felt humiliated, rather than supported, in the debilitating changes their bodies were going through. They realized that now was the time to take responsibility for making choices that best fit their own individual bodies. In other words, rather than spending all this time and money on continuing the “mirror, mirror on the wall” mythology in order to remain sexually attractive, crones can focus their attention inwards and relax into the source of love deep within themselves. They can then focus their energy creatively on improving the quality of life and on working actively to end violence, beginning with their own bodies.

Next, each woman began to share her sexual story and speak to the shame, hurt and grief, as well as joy and desire contained in it. Deeper into the darkness the women dared to tread, now feeling safe with one another, the essential ingredient for this work. As one participant said: ” It was very important for me that it felt safe to share my physical and emotional pain in the group. This is such a transformational time for me-breaking through my conditioning. I received so much support from the other women by sharing what was really going on for me. This was very healing as I don’t usually feel it’s accepted to share this part of me.”

Throughout the day and full moon night, the women allowed the heavy burdens they were carrying in their souls to find expression and be released. Mothers burdened by guilt, feeling responsible for their adult children’s misdeeds. Single mothers, having focused the past twenty years on nurturing their children, now faced with the emptiness of their lives as their children leave home. Women feeling self-loathing because of their past bad choices. Women burdened by the pain of rejection, now unable to open up as lovers. Single women, starving for love and feeling the shame of being cast-off ‘old maids’. Women feeling the fear of growing old alone. Women, whose unexpressed rage at the cards that were dealt, locked in their bodies, like armour.

In her book 'Anatomy of the Spirit' Carolyn Myss speaks to the ‘victim’ consciousness in our culture and how this is a way of leaking out vital energy and cause for dis-ease. She tells a story illustrating the concept that we each tell our ‘sad, sad story’ only three times, and no more. Then we take responsibility to heal and let the story go, remembering the lessons learnt therein. So this part of the Rite of Passage provides the container for the circle of women to “story together”, sharing their stories through dance, theatre and song. The greatest respect we can show each other is ‘to companion another to empty her cup’. Many women have an ease with listening; it is in clearing their throats and finding their authentic voice where the challenge lies. Each woman’s willingness to share what was hidden in her darkness, to bring it out into the light of truth, enabled her to release it and let it go. At the end of the night, when the whole group of women howled a spontaneous chorus to the full moon, the power of the ‘release’ was felt by all. One participant later said: “An atmosphere of trust, acceptance and inner peace was created that allowed me to share and receive the wisdom and stories of the other women. What struck me was that even though we were a very diversified group of women, all of our stories had the same elements running through them. Too often our society does not value anyone once the blush of youth has faded. However, having the opportunity to see the strength, beauty and wisdom of my fellow crones was a very empowering experience.”

As we bring awareness to the ways we ‘leak’ our vital energy, we can instead focus on ways to ‘gather and store’ this energy. Thus throughout the rite of passage, self-expression is balanced with self-exploration: turning inwards through guided meditations and breathing exercises. Once our thoughts are still, we enter the eternal ‘now’, the unknown. These times of silence together demonstrate experientially the ecstasy of our energy when we feel it from ‘within’, without dissipating it through constant chatter. For the cycle of the crone represents a time of relaxing into and dwelling in this deep well of energy contained within.

On Sunday morning you could feel the freshness after the emotional “spring-cleaning.” The group energy was dynamic and soft at the same time and each woman’s essence was overflowing with a purity of spirit. Having found the courage to feel and release the pain, she became the alchemist and extracted the “gold” that was hidden therein. As the women allowed the light of forgiveness, self-love and acceptance to come into the sacred space and danced their surrender to the cycle of the crone, I witnessed with awe the energetic transformation that had taken place. Each woman’s self- expression was rich in substance, filling the whole space, as opposed to the tentative, held-back energy of the first evening. Faces were glowing as the beauty of each woman shone through her sparkling eyes and her self-worth radiated from within, no longer dependent on outside approval.

“The process of recreating myself through art-of choosing to bring the intrinsic beauty and power of my own nature out into the light of day-was the spiritual core of my rite of passage.” (Josie RavenWing: The Return of Spirit, p.58)

More and more women are redefining the word “crone” away from the ‘haggled-toothed, hump-backed rotten, stinking flesh’definition that the patriarchal dictionaries would have us believe. In her series of talks, Sitting by the Well, Marion Woodman describes the crone cycle as the “crossroad” where a woman comes to the place within her of deep surrender. After a lifetime of trying to improve herself in order to become a “perfect” daughter, wife and mother, a woman’s “surrender” to herself just as she is, becomes like bathing in the refreshing water in the pool of her soul. Grounded in her connection with her inner wisdom, she now lives from her own authority. Centred in the source of love within herself, she no longer feels like a beggar, starving for little crumbs of love, for she knows her inner truth and beauty, and has taken back ownership of her sexual energy. As Vicki Noble describes it:

“The Crone has gained control of the sacred fire. She keeps the inner fire burning…She has learnt the power of energy retention and transmutation and she can choose how to spend or store her energies.” ( Motherpeace Tarot).

Clear, honest communication is a vital tool for the crone. When challenged, she stands in the fire and speaks her truth, yet remains vulnerable at the same time. She takes responsibility for her needs and communicates these with respect and without blame. Her self-worth is rooted in her self-awareness and self-acceptance. Having dared to dance her darkness and done whatever necessary to heal her own wounds, she now feels a deep compassion for herself and others. She can now be of service to others younger than herself, shining brightly as a model of the freedom of self-acceptance.

Because she has borne five children
And her belly is criss-crossed
With little tongues of fire…

Give her honour
Give her honour, you fools,
Give her honour”

(Grace Nichols, ‘Because she has come’)

One of the issues for women who are mothers of daughters is how to model for our daughters in this culture. In their book, Mother-Daughter Revolution: From Betrayal to Power, the authors, Debold, Wilson and Malave, make the point that few daughters want to be like their mothers. They describe how once daughters reach puberty, mothering becomes teaching them how to survive in a patriarchal culture where protecting themselves is emphasized over being encouraged to express themselves. This is the betrayal daughters feel in their adolescence when they need their mothers as allies rather than as ‘jailers’. As the daughter grows more into her power and sexuality, often the mother is challenged to do the same, as she is told to “get a life”. Daughters do not want the pressure of their mothers’ neediness. They want to see that their mothers are whole unto themselves, rather than a model of dependence. Germaine Greer describes a “whole woman” in the following way:

“She would be a woman who did not exist to embody male sexual fantasies or rely upon a man to endow her with identity and social status, a woman who did not have to be beautiful, who could be clever, who would grow in authority as she aged.”
(The Whole Woman, p.5).

Having felt their powerlessness for so long, women often find it difficult to acknowledge their inner wisdom and to give themselves the permission to take up time and space to express it. They often know what their gifts and purpose are, but many hold themselves back from finding the form in which to share them for fear they are not yet “perfect”. The crone discards the concept of “perfection”, as she sits in her own authority and has learnt to hear and trust her inner guidance. No longer starving for love to be requited, she has turned inwards and found the source of love within herself. She radiates love without anyone needing to be there. It is a time to honour and celebrate the exquisite, intricate ‘mandala’ at her very center; her compassionate heart fully opened as the petals begin to fade.

For more information about Layah Bennan and her work please see her website www.whole-woman.com

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